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London launch celebrates Palestinian history through embroidery

Embroidered by Palestinian women, the Palestine History Tapestry is composed of embroidered panels depicting Palestinian history from Neolithic times to the present

Hundreds of people gathered today to attend the London launch of the Palestinian History Tapestry Project (PHT), an exhibition celebrating the history of Palestine as told by Palestinians themselves.

Embroidered by 36 Palestinian women living across the Middle East, the tapestry is composed of 80 panels, each of which depicts a different period of Palestinian history. From the walls of Jericho – thought to be the earliest walled city – to the founding of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the 2014 war on Gaza, the tapestry is awash with intricate stitches and vibrant colours.

Tonight’s event was opened by Shelagh Weir, former Middle East curator at the British Museum, who described how Palestinian embroidery has formed an integral part of Palestinian culture for centuries. She explains:

Before the Nakba of 1948, there were thousands of villages in Palestine. Each village had its own style of embroidery to distinguish itself from others, which then fed into a broader regional style. Some of the richest embroidery was from the Hebron area, where many of the dresses were covered in ornate cross-stitch and intricate patterns.

“Of course everything changed in 1948”, she explains, referring to the forcible displacement of some 750,000 Palestinians by Jewish militias. “Suddenly Palestinians couldn’t import Syrian silks and taffetas as they did before, and those languishing in refugee camps could not afford such expensive materials. So women switched to using DMC mercerised cotton – a synthetic and much cheaper alternative.”

Although this may sound simple and even insignificant, thanks to their ingenuity and resourcefulness Palestinian women were able to keep their traditional craft alive: “Each shade of DMC cotton had a number and so women continued to express their village identity by using the shade of red they would have stitched with back in Palestine. The sellers of DMC cotton came to know which shade of red belonged to which village, and so in this way Palestinian women were able to carry on their cultural heritage even in the diaspora.”

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Such tales of resilience in the face of the seemingly-insurmountable challenges that have characterised Palestinian history were a continuing theme of the evening. Karl Sabbagh, a British-Palestinian author and advisor to PHT, focused his speech on the later periods of Palestinian history and the myriad changes the 20th century brought to the country.

He particularly focused on UN Resolution 194, which resolved that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return”. Sabbagh reflected on the inherent contradiction between Israel’s Law of Return – which states that any Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel should they wish to do so – and its refusal to adhere to this UN resolution, a contradiction he believes must be overcome by granting equal citizenship and immigration rights to all if any solution to the protracted conflict is to be found.

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One of the most striking elements of the evening’s discussion was the way in which this project allows Palestinians to speak for themselves. Gazan journalist Jehan Alfarra reflected on her experience as a Palestinian woman and what her involvement in the project has meant to her, saying:

One of the things that struck me about working on the project was the way in which I could meet other Palestinian women, whether from the Naqab or the West Bank, who I would never meet if we were all living in Palestine.

“We all have such different experiences of being Palestinian,” she considers, explaining: “In Gaza we don’t see the occupation like those who live in the West Bank, where they experience checkpoints every day. Yet equally they don’t know what it’s like to live under siege in Gaza.” “Quite often, even though we’re all Palestinian, we can’t relate to what the other is going through, and so working with these women on the tapestry has allowed me to learn more about my own people and our own sense of identity,” she adds.

“Wherever you find Palestinians they will feel a sense of pride at their embroidery, and that is something that unites us all,” Alfarra concludes, perfectly encapsulating the atmosphere of the evening. On display at P21 Gallery, London until 22 December, the Palestinian History Tapestry is a beautiful homage to centuries of history that so often go untold.

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